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HowTo Tutorial

Mandolin Fret Dress and New Nut

Fullerton A Style Mandolin

I acquired this Fullerton “A” style mandolin a few years ago when one of the big retailers was closing out the brand. It’s a nice instrument overall, well constructed and for the price was a great way to learn some mandolin. What I’ve found lacking was the fret-work. So here we go, getting down to brass-tacks and doing a pretty thorough fret dress. What got me going on this was the nut developing a crack which made it necessary to craft a replacement.

Broken Mandolin Nut

Here you can see the nut, like a broken tooth, removed from the mandolin neck. Removing the nut makes an ideal situation for doing fret work, as the leveling files can go over the full length of the neck.

By sighting down the neck with the strings slackened and pulled aside, and the nut removed it’s pretty clear that there are some high frets which directly affect how low the action can be set. This becomes a major issue with a mandolin, as the frets are the smallest available, so that great care must be taken to only level them as much as necessary.

Leveling Mandolin Frets With A Leveling File

After an initial brush over with my leveling plane (an industrial diamond coated steel plate), it became clear that these frets had some very uneven tops. This was no quick fret dress.

Rocking A File Over High Frets

Using my rocker file up and down and across the neck confirms this with the clear clacking sound as the file rocks back and forth when balanced over a high fret.

A Sharpie used to ink the tops of all frets.

Using a sharpie I mark the tops of each fret, allowing the ink to dry before proceeding. Careful not to stain the binding or fret board with the ink. Another sweep across the whole fretting surface with a fine leveling plane reveals the high and low frets and the ink is worn off. This is work, observe and continue sort of process. Observing how the plane is removing material from the top of the frets guides me where to apply firmer pressure.

High frets after Going over sharpie marks

Unfortunately, a few frets were very high, and I had to move to a medium leveling file to get the frets leveled down evenly. This instrument is made in China and typically with this level of quality the frets are not made of the hardest form nickel-silver.

Using a soft paint brush to sweep away filing debri.

A soft paint brush is excellent for brushing the fret dust off. With a high quality instrument, (or a customer’s for that matter), greater care would be taken to mask off the instrument body to prevent the chance of scratches.

A triangle file with a rounded edge for fret side profiling.

A triangle file with a rounded edge for fret side profiling.

A triangular file with a single rounded edge is used to put a taper on the fret edges. These frets are pretty soft, so the final rounding is done with graduated grades of sandpaper.

An issue that came up as I worked through my various leveling files working down to the finest grade was that the frets are so small that none of my crowning files will work to give the frets the necessary angled side profiling after the tops are leveled. Ideally, the tops will be leveled, slightly rounded over, and the side tapered to create a finer point of contact for the strings. These keeps the notes accurate, and the tone clean without buzzes.

I put some extra pressure on the highest frets from the point where neck meets the body. This keeps the action low for the final set-up. There’s usually some slight rise in the fret board where the neck is glued in verses the part of the neck that is clear of the body. This mandolin doesn’t have an adjustable truss rod. Most likely there’s a plain steel rod set into the neck under the fingerboard to provide the rigidity to offset the pressure of the string tension.

Using sand paper to round over and polish frets.

Filing done, I move onto using sandpaper (grades 400, 800, and 1200) to put a bit of roundness on the top of the frets and polish them up to a bright gloss. Using finer and finer grades removes the scratches left by the former grade of paper. It’s important to work the frets over evenly, avoiding upsetting the delicate leveled state made during filing.

The Fretboard cleaned after filing and sanding.

Fretboard grime cleaned up with Denatured Alcohol.

Once the sanding is done I use denatured alcohol to clean the fret board. You can see the kind of grime that comes off on the rag in the photo. I keep going back over it using the solvent until the rag comes away clean.

Denatured Alcohol is pretty safe to use, and not nearly as harmful (potentially) as harsher solvents, like naptha or benzine. Still, care should be taken to avoid using any solvents near open flames, smoking, pilot lights, etc. I follow the manufacture’s warnings on the solvent packaging, including working in a well ventilated area.

A light coat of Mineral Oil rubbed in to seal and condition the fretboard.

The denatured alcohol dries the fretboard surface, a well as removing any traces of waxes or other conditioners. To offset this I use either lemon oil or simply mineral oil to condition the board. This gives it a nice luster and protects the fret board from drying out too much.

A new mandolin nut partially shaped.

Next the nut is cut from a scrap piece. And formed and fitted using files and sandpaper. It’s a back and forth process getting the shape just right.
Once the basic shape is formed, I use a feeler gauge with a grooved edge to very carefully cut the start of the new nut slots. While luthiers with busy shops might have a pattern for this, I do not, so the process takes some care to get it just right.

Cutting nut slots for the 4 courses of double strings.

Using a small diamond file to deepen the new nut slots

After cutting the nut slots using fine files to make them deeper the nut is then reshaped a bit and polished up before being fitted to the end of the neck permanently.

New Mandolin nut slots cut.

This mandolin is starting to shape up, the frets leveled, new nut, and now the bridge leveled and cutting fresh slots to space the strings evenly.

Tapping grooves in the leveled bridge.

I use a soft faced hammer to tap the string grooves into the bridge. A few turns of the bridge adjustment nuts and the bridge height is set.

The bridge set between the F-Holes.

The bridge is set so that the feet are at the mid-points of the two cut-out F-holes. That’s it, ready to tune it up and try my hand at playing some mandolin.

This is the kind of work you can do yourself if you’re handy. This article glosses over the key steps in performing a fret-dress.

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HowTo Tutorial

Changing Strings: String Winding/String Snapping

This tutorial covers guitars with stop tail, or fixed bridges.

String winding seems simple enough, right? Put the string through the hole in the tuner and wind it up. What could be simpler? If I had a dollar for every time someone wanted to change their tuners, switch to a different brand of strings, have a new nut installed, switch out their tremolo or even swap out the neck of their guitar – all for the sake of “Tuning Stability” I’d have at least $1000 bucks.

String winding is the kind of thing that, done right, can have a real impact on how your guitar plays, and more importantly – stays in tune.

The Theory: Tight windings tune and play better. Why? As the string wraps around the tuning post tight, even windings distribute the pull of the string as it comes to tension – while allowing a little bit of flex. Strings that are wound sloppily flex unevenly, at times abruptly losing tension or causing one string to feel tighter than the next because it can’t flex.

Part One: The Wind Up

First a note about safety. String ends are sharp, and during tuning and winding the strings ends can whip around and catch you in the face or eye, so be careful. Un trimmed wound strings can snag clothing and puncture skin or poke your face or eye. Trimmed wound strings can still have a sharp end at the tuning peg. Be careful, wear eye protection.

  1. For best tuning stability change one string at a time, especially if you are restringing a guitar with a tremolo (Tremolo specific tutorials here).
  2. Remove a string by detuning it rather than cutting. Cutting is easy, and sort of cool, like tattoos. But it also jolts the neck, trem and other strings. At least don’t come crying to the ModGuitar.com crew when it takes days for your newly strung guitar to settle and hold it’s tuning.
  3. Load up a new string, align the tuning peg’s hole straight on with the path of the string by turning the tuning key forward or back, then pull the string thru th hole until it’s taught. Place your finger on the string at the nut and pull 2-4 inches of string back from the tuning peg. Wound strings take less pulled back string, because the peg can only take so many wraps before overlapping. The idea is to have an even winding of string without overlaps that ends just before the bottom of the tuning peg when the string under full tension. You can snap fresh strings easily if you over tighten them. Leave a little slack before your final tuning.
  4. With the pulled back bit of string held at the nut, take the end of the string going thru the tuning peg and crimp it in the opposite direction of the tuning pegs rotation. Six on a side guitars the peg rotates counter clockwise, 3 on a side guitars the pegs rotate from the inside out.The kink helps the string to grab onto the peg, keeping the loose end of the string from shifting.
  5. Now use your string winder (you’ll want one if you don’t have one, they’re cheap, get one). Steadily wind the tuning peg as you guide the string making sure that as it comes around the second time it doesn’t overlap and it settles in underneath the first winding. This is important. As the string winds around and down the tuning peg the correct angle is created at the nut to minimize pings and improve tone.
  6. Now as you finish winding the fresh string around the post, use your other hand to both press the string into the nut so the string winds down the tuning peg without overlapping and take up the slack on the string so that it winds up evenly.
  7. Ideally your freshly wound string will look something like this. If you end up with too much string at the bottom of the tuning peg and it starts to overlap, you can unwind it and take up a little more slack before re-winding, or chalk it up to experience, and try again the next time you change strings.
  8. Repeat five times (remember to use less pulled back string as you go to the lighter strings). At this point your guitar should be in tune and ready to be played.
  9. You can go ahead and clip the ends of the strings with a string clipper or a pair of nipper pliers available from most hardware stores, careful for flying string ends, which can be very sharp.

Wow! A lot of steps for such a simple task. Following this step-by step method should put you on the road to great tuning stability and long string life. Moving on… For even better tuning stability learn to also ‘Snap’ your strings.



Part Two: String Snapping

The tuning tutorial goes over tuning basics, but the first time tuning up a fresh set of strings you’ll want to do what’s known as “String Snapping” which is pretty much what it sounds like. What snapping does is to jolt the individual strings in a controlled way which tightens the windings on the post and helps the stabilize the strings tension, so you have less detuning and retuning to do with a fresh set.

  1. With all the strings wound up and roughly tuned, begin with the sixth (low E) string and using a reference tone – tune it up to pitch. Now, with your finger and thumb gently lift the string away from the fretboard, about an inch or so. Then let it snap back down. Do this three or four times, you’ll notice if you pluck the string that it’s pitch goes down as you snap flexibility out of the windings.
  2. Retune the string and snap it again. Repeat the snap & retune cycle until snapping no longer causes the string to drop in pitch.
  3. Repeat with all the wound strings, and sometimes the 3rd unwound G string. Depending on the gauge your using, the unwound strings – if they are wound correctly, don’t need much snapping, if any, before they are stable.

You’ll probably notice that as you go across the wound string snapping and retuning that you need to go round-robin and again snap and tune all the strings a few times before the tuning stabilizes. With this technique coupled with a tight and even wind on the tuning pegs, you’ll notice that your guitar stays in tune better, stayed tuned longer, and holds a tune sooner with a fresh set of strings (All fresh strings stretch a little, evan after snapping them).

Conclusions: Tight string winding around the post, and carefully snapping strings at tension to remove excess slack are the best ways to change strings and keep your guitar or bass playing in tune.

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HowTo Lessons Tutorial

Tuning The Guitar

Follow along and learn to tune your guitar or bass. This tutorial demonstrates various methods for tuning the guitar.
The guitar is an imperfect instrument. The frets divide the strings length into segments according to a mathematical formula devised by Pythagorus thousands of years ago. Piano tuners have developed their own means to correct for the imperfect nature of mathematical sound versus musical sound. They use a tempered, or stretch tuning to compensate for what is known as discordance. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier compositions are some of the earliest musical compositions meant to take advantage of a tuning that is altered to get the best sound.

  • What we as guitar players end up with is a compromise between perfect tuning and a more pleasing sounding instrument when played. The frets divide the strings length into 12 tones per octave. The 12th fret producing a note one octave higher than the open string note.
  • The guitar is tuned in perfect fourths, that is, each string is tuned to the fifth note on the string before it – except for the 2nd (B) string which is tuned the fourth of the 3rd (G) string.
  • The 6 strings are tuned (from the lowest wound bass string to the highest treble string) E, A, D, G, B, E. The high E string is an Octave higher than the lowest E string. On the bass, the low E string is an Octave lower than the guitar’s low E string.

A bit confusing, as the 4th note on each string is not at the 4th fret, but rather the 5th. This is due to the musical scale having 12 tones, including a natural and a perfect 4th, the later being the 5th note of the 12 tone (western music) scale. Let’s take a look at some illustrations which will make clear our understanding of guitar tuning.


 

Tuning From A Reference Pitch:

As the illustration shows, the bass E string is tuned to a reference note from a piano, electronic tuner, or another instrument. Then the rest of the strings beginning with the A string are tuned by playing the 5th fret note of the prior string.

Example: Fret the 6th string at the 5th fret, hold the note and pluck the 5th string open note.

Listen to the sounds, when out of tune there will be a wavering or fluttery sound as the two strings sound together. Play them both back and fourth listening closely. Now adjust the 5th string using the tuning key. If the 5th string sounds higher than the fretted 6th string note, turn the tuning key counter clockwise to tune the 5th string down. If the 5th string open note is lower than the 6th string fretted note, tune the string up, all along listening and comparing the notes until they are in unison. This may seem complex at first, but in no time you will be tuning your guitar as second nature. This the simplest way of tuning the guitar, and it works the same for the bass. For the bass guitar tune the same as the bottom four strings of the guitar but an octave lower.

With this method you can match your tuning to other instruments, recordings quickly. It is also a good method for tuning a guitar “to itself” meaning when played alone the instrument will sound good no matter how accurately the bass E string is tuned to a source note, as long as all the other strings are tuned in relation to the 6th string.

 


Tuning With An Electronic Tuner: Using an electronic tuner is a quick and easy way to tune the guitar. It’s always a good idea to know how to tune the traditional way as outlined above for when you don’t feel like plugging into a tuner, don’t have a tuner handy, are matching someone else’s tuning, or your batteries have gone dead. Let’s go over some electronic tuner basics.

  • Electronic tuners work best with a fresh batteries. Many models will flash “bat low” or a LED light when they are low.
  • There are a few different types of tuners, which range from under $20 to hundreds of dollars. With accuracy and features to match.
  • The basic VU meter style tuner has a needle which floats over a display to show you how in-tune your string is.
  • LED based models tend to have faster response and be slightly more accurate than Vu display tuners.

More accurate and expensive Strobe tuners use electronics to show display the tuning of your strings using a sliding bar graph. These tuners are more accurate than Vu or LED tuners. The accuracy is not as big or a deal as you might think, aside from studio players and luthiers who specialize in setting up instruments and recording their performances much of this type of accuracy is lost during play and performance for the average tuner user.

From left to right, VU style, LED, and Strobe tuner displays.

When using an electronic tuner, use your bridge pick-up with the volume turned all the way up and the tone controls wide open (no high frequency attenuation). This give the brightest and clearest signal for the tuner to “listen” to. Electronic tuners can be Chromatic (able to tune all notes of the musical scale within several octaves) Or designed specifically for bass or guitar – often limited to just the 6 open notes.

Electronic tuners are convenient and simple to use. There are a few options to look for when choosing an electronic tuner. Modguitar.com recommends buying a simple tuner for the beginner and more advanced models for hose who want to set-up their own instruments or those wanting to be in as perfect tuning as possible for recording.

 


Tuning With Natural Harmonics: A well intonated guitar can be tuned using natural harmonic notes.

  • The harmonic notes at each strings 5th and 7th strings are used as reference points to tune the other strings.
  • The second string (B) is tuned to the 6th strings 7th fret harmonic.

Harmonics are played by lightly pressing the string at the nodal point and plucking. Your finger acts as a “stop” at the nodal point. Nodal points are mathematical devisions of the string. The 12th fret is the easiest harmonic to play, it is the exact halfway point along the strings length. Other nodal points occur at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th frets. In actuality there are more nodal points, but thy are not all easily played on the guitar. After the twelfth fret the nodal point continue in the same progression as they do from the nut forward. Simply think of the 12th fret as the nut or open string, an count up. You can also slide your finger along the length of the string while picking to find other nodal points. Take a look at the following diagram to see how tuning with harmonics is done.

  • Following the above illustration beginning on the 6th string at the 5th fret, play the harmonic, then play the harmonic of the 5th string at the 7th fret – compare the notes and adjust the 5th string until it matches the 6th and so on for the other strings.
  • The 2nd string is tuned by comparing the 6th string 7th fret harmonic to the 2nd string 12th fret harmonic. Then the High E string is tuned by comparing the 5th and 7th fret harmonic like the first four strings.

Tuning by natural harmonics works best for guitars where the intonation has been precisely adjusted. Harmonics are very accurate- but the guitar itself sometimes is not. For this reasons you may find differences when tuning by fretted notes compared to tuning with harmonics or electronic tuners.

Guitar Tuning, Conclusions: In many ways tuning is a balancing act. Explore the tuning methods shown in this tutorial, and decide which method works best for you. This tutorial covered the basics of tuning by fretted notes, using an electronic tuner, and using natural harmonics.

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HowTo MODS Tutorial

Quick Nut Fix

Pinging And Buzzing Are The Symptoms. How To Fix It Fast.

If you’ve ever worked on your nut, you know how easy it is to go a little too far in the search of comfortable low action ending up with some string buzz. The nut can wear down in time, or you may notice a pinging sound when tuning up or playing. Fortunately, there is a quick fix that can get your guitar up and running again in just a few hours. Ideally, you would cut and shape a new nut or have your tech do it for you. On the road or on a budget, sometimes a quick fix is needed.

Here’s What You’ll Need:

  1. Cyanoacrylate glue; gel or liquid. Krazy Glue is one brand name. Follow all manufacture’s warnings and instructions when using Cyanoacrylate glues.
  2. Masking Tape. Low tack blue painters tape preferred
  3. Sand Paper: 600 grit or higher.
  4. Small files (gauged nut slotting files for the perfectionists). Your choice of files range from a fingernail file, cheap hobby shop files (as pictured) or specialized nut slotting files.
  5. Cyanoacrylate glue thinner. For clean-up of glue runs or unsticking glued fingers.

Steps

1. Loosen the strings and pull them aside. If you’re working on just a single nut slot set the string in the next slot or hang it off the fret board edge. You can use tape to anchor the string(s) to the side of the neck to keep them clear of work area.




2. Apply a small piece of tape firmly into the crevice between the front of the nut and the fingerboard. This creates a dam to hold the glue in the nut slot. The tape should come all the way up the face of the nut and can overhang the top of the nut slightly.



3. With the guitar on a stand apply a drop or two of glue in the low slot. It’s better to apply a small amount and let that layer dry, then apply more glue if you need to build up a really low slot. A pinch of baking soda can be sprinkled on the wet glue to build up the slot if it’s needed.


4. Set the guitar aside and let the glue dry for about four hours. When the chemical smell of the glue evaporating is gone, it’s dry and should be hard. If you can indent the dry glue with a screwdriver tip it still needs more time.



5. Use the small files to re-cut the nut slot. Careful you don’t go too deep this time! Use a feeler gauge to measure the relief over the 1st fret while pressing down at the second fret. Gibson and Fender specs call for between .014″ and .020″ (this amount varies for string gauge and fret style).


The animation above shows where to press the string to gauge the amount of relief over the 1st fret. The relief should be just enough to see, hear, and feel that the string can move freely over the first fret. Getting this just right is essential to a low comfortable playing action.



Use sandpaper to smooth out the repaired and re-cut nut slot.



Pencil lead rubbed into the slot helps keeps the string from binding.


Done! What once buzzed or pinged is again playable. This type of fix is permanent but not ideal. Replacing a nut with one that’s solid and cleanly cut is always the best for tone and playability.